Afghan Poppies, Climate Change and War: Thinking Systemically About Us and Them

This page authored by Karen Litfin, professor of political science and environmental studies at University of Washington
Author Profile


Depending upon the instructor's intention, students will engage in contemplative and/or reflective practice around a specific application of "the triple inequality" associated with global climate change: the fact that, for the most part, the environmental impacts of climate change will be most severe in the poorest countries, which are simultaneously the least equipped to adapt and the least responsible for causing the problem. Yet, climate impacts will necessarily be local and highly contextualized. The case of the Afghan poppy, an extremely drought tolerant plant that also happens to be lucrative, and deeply entwined with the War on Terror, offers a surprising and troubling window into the enormous complexity of climate impacts in one specific context.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

Systemic analysis often generates surprising connections. Who would imagine that the War on Terrorism, climate change, and opium farming in Afghanistan (and hence food security there as well as heroin markets here) are closely linked? This exercise extends students' capacity for systems thinking about socioecological systems into the realms of emotional and somatic experience. The exercise challenges students to consider interdependencies linking climate change, global justice, war, food security, and drug addiction not only conceptually but also somatically and emotionally. In other words, I ask students to notice their internal experience as they become aware of global socio-ecological connections.

Depending upon your intentions and therefore what you choose to emphasize, this exercise can be used to foster:

* analytical, critical, and integrative thinking;
* cognitive, emotional and somatic self-awareness;
* a greater capacity for hosting complexity on a global scale;
* ethical inquiry and discernment;
* a deeper inquiry into the nature of citizenship in the Anthropocene.

Context for Use

I have used different versions of this exercise in three of my upper-level undergraduate courses: Political Ecology of the World Food System; Global Environmental Politics; and Anthropocene Politics. The first two are large lecture courses; the third is an Honors Seminar. In all cases, I place the exercise at roughly midway through the course. By this time, students have begun to grasp and apply key elements of systems theory: the difference between mechanical and living systems, complexity, feedback loops, nonlinearity, adaptive cycles, self-generativity, and leverage points. While I can imagine using this exercise in the absence of prior knowledge of systems theory, I would be reluctant to do so. Otherwise, students might be too eager to make spurious connections and ignore the larger lessons about feedback loops.

Most importantly, I only use this exercise after students have learned to grapple seriously with the interpenetrating character of social and ecological systems.

Description and Teaching Materials

During the week when I use this exercise, I ask students to read in advance Christian Parenti, "Flower of War: An Environmental History of Opium Poppy in Afghanistan."The SAIS Review of International Affairs , vol. 35, no. 1, 2015, pp. 183–200. In Parenti's words, "Poppy is only one entrance point to this 'flow of flows,' which links Afghan river valley soil to smuggling networks, bank accounts, religious and ethnic prejudices; and all of this with grand geo-strategy, the climatological consequences of the Industrial Revolution; and even in an attenuated fashion, bears upon the brains of living drug users like a nightmare."

Depending upon which course I'm teaching, I introduce the exercise with some images (see attached for examples), reminding them of Parenti's key points. If time allows, I might also ask them what was most surprising in the article. I then invite them to close their eyes, relax, become conscious of their weight on the chair and their breathing for a minute or two. I then speak to some of the connections that Parenti makes, asking them to notice their emotions, sensations, and any thoughts they might have -- being sure to include long silences, but not so long that their minds wander off. One question I often use in contemplative practices (and which will therefore be familiar to the students by the middle of the quarter) is: "Who am I in relation to this?" Depending upon whether I want the students to harvest the fruits of their contemplation individually or collectively, I might invite them to either spend a few minutes journaling or else share something of their experience. In courses that emphasize policy solutions, I might invite them to map the global socio-ecological system in which Afghan poppy farming is embedded and then consider potential leverage points.

Depending upon the course, I might deploy a specific angle to introduce the exercise with a video or images highlighting how core concepts of the course shed light on Parenti's article. Some of these angles include:

Food Politics:
Commodity chains
The agricultural treadmill (complicated by militarism)
Hunger and food insecurity
Climate change and drought-tolerant agriculture
Arable land and drug production (perhaps comparing marijuana, cocaine, and heroine)

Global Environmental Politics:
War and environmental insecurity
Climate change and militarism

Anthropocene Politics:
Any of the above, depending upon the themes of seminar discussions, plus:
* A focus on how all of this is communicated through the Internet. The framing question for this course is: "What does human beingness mean in the Anthropocene?"
* A shift of focus from supply to demand and on the political ecology of addiction, from the opioids addiction in the US to the relationship between addiction and the unfolding global socio-ecological crises.

International Relations
Global interdependence/asymmetric interdependence
Problematizing security: national, environmental, food, global, human

Below you will find a slideshow of potentially useful images: Images for Afghan Poppy Exercise (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 2.2MB Aug28 17)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Given the prevalence of opioid addiction in the United States, you might want to consider a content warning prior to using this exercise. Oddly enough, I stumbled into the U.S. heroin connection when I assigned Parenti's article in 2016 in my "Anthropocene Politics" course. After in-class discussion, one of my students spoke with me confidentially about his brother, who was a heroin addict. He was not disturbed by the contemplative practice, but another student could have been.

When I teach about global socio-ecological systems, I emphasize the difference between linear causality and interdependencies in complex adaptive systems. Otherwise, some students will be tempted to draw spurious conclusions, for instance: the War on Terror (or, going further back, the Cold War) has caused the U.S. heroin epidemic.


In large lecture classes, I like to "take the classroom pulse." This involves asking the students to say one or two words that reflect their experiences. I usually begin with students in the back row and then "switchbacking" from the back-row students down to the front row. This exercise might elicit words like: thoughtful, amazed, sad, confused, afraid, angry, concerned, etc. I might then ask, "Even though we've heard such different words, how many of you can relate to pretty much every experience you've just heard?" When all or most hands go up, as has always been the case, I ask them to look around. My sense is that this kind of collective assessment not only gives me information but also helps to build a sense of solidarity in the learning community.

I also gather a good deal of individual assessment data on my contemplative classroom practices through the following anonymous online poll.

Contemplative Practice Survey

How did this guided practice work for you? Please mark the response that best expresses your experience. If you wish to offer more detail, I invite you to use the "Comments" section.

a. I gained some insights into myself and/or the world through this practice.
b. I was glad for the respite from my otherwise very busy day.
c. I feel neutral about the exercise.
d. I did not find this to be a good use of my time.

At the beginning of the quarter, I offer share this data with the students -- which can make for some interesting discussion. Over the years, I have received thousands of answers to this question and the results are remarkably consistent. The following is a typical range of responses:

a. I gained some insights into myself and/or the world through this practice. (33%)
b. I was glad for the respite from my otherwise very busy day. (60%)
c. I feel neutral about the exercise. (5%)
d. I did not find this to be a good use of my time. (2%)

References and Resources

First, here is my approach to using contemplative practices in my teaching: Litfin, Karen. "Person/Planet Politics: Contemplative Pedagogies for a New Earth." In New Earth Politics: Essays from the Anthropocene. Edited by Simon Nicholson and Sikina Jinnah. MIT Press, 2016.

For this exercise, I ask students to read Parenti, Christian. "Flower of War: An Environmental History of Opium Poppy in Afghanistan." The SAIS Review of International Affairs, vol. 35, no. 1, 2015, pp. 183–200.

I have found many useful resources on systems theory that incorporate social and political dimensions, including:

The classic text on systems theory is the highly accessible Meadows, Donella H., and Wright, Diana. Thinking in Systems : a Primer. London, Sterling, VA, Earthscan, 2009.

You'll find a nice summary of Meadows' book on this slideshare:

The best online resource for systems thinking I've found is the Complexity Academy's YouTube channel, which is true to its lead quote by Albert Einstein, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it." You'll find hundreds of short videos on the application of complexity thinking to dozens of topics. I generally select relevant videos from their Complexity Theory course:

Commodity chains: See world map in

I highly recommend Peter Whybrow's highly accessible neuroscientific analysis of addiction, which he links to consumerism.

I recommend showing compelling images that bring Parenti's argument to life before you begin the contemplative exercise. You'll find many Creative Commons images of afghan poppy farmers and military forces guarding poppy fields.